Surprise families recall migrant roots
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 7, 2006

Dianna M. Nez


For many newcomers who watched Surprise's population explode from roughly 31,000 in 2000 to more than 88,000 last year, it seems like their community sprouted up overnight.

But families of the migrant farm workers who originally settled the area know the seeds of the city were sewn long ago by neighbors coming together to build a lasting home. Over the years, the area bounded by Bell, El Mirage, Greenway and Dysart roads became known as the city's "Original Square Mile." But in 2000, during discussion of the city's new development plan, residents asked that the city refer to the area as the "Original Townsite."

"This was a migrants' town," said Becky Arismendez, whose grandparents moved to the area in the 1940s. "There were a few houses, dirt roads and people still rode horses." Arismendez's family was one of many that came to work in the onion and cotton fields of Surprise. She said some of the original homes were actually leftover barracks from what was then known as Luke Field, which later became an air base.

"My family lived on Jerry Street in a one-bedroom barrack home with 12 kids and two parents," she said. "The area that is now Wal-Mart used to all be onion and cotton fields."

Arismendez said she and her husband, Councilman Danny Arismendez, still live in the Original Townsite because, "There's a lot of history here. I could move, but I love living in a community where I know everybody."

Originally, the city cited Flora Mae Statler as its founder, as her name appeared on Surprise's first subdivision plat dated April 15, 1938. The story went that the city got its name when Statler remarked that it would be a "surprise" if the low-income housing community ever became a real town.
Recently, the family of Statler's husband, Homer C. Ludden, a Glendale real estate developer and retired state legislator, provided documentation that he was actually the city's founder and named it after his Nebraska hometown.
It wasn't until 1960 that the city was incorporated with a population of about 1,000.

But for Original Townsite residents like City Clerk Sherry Aguilar, whose grandparents moved to the area from Texas in the mid-1940s, the city's history is less about a name than it is about a group of "mostly poor people who didn't have a lot" but still made the best of it.

She said the community was diverse, with Black and White families coming mostly from the South, and Hispanic families arriving from Mexico who were joined by their shared status as agricultural workers.

"The foreman would come with a truck and load everyone up," she said. "There was a feeling of community where people would actually help each other."

Aguilar said she enjoys living in the Original Townsite but fears new residents may not share her appreciation for the old neighborhood.

"I hear people talking about Surprise like it's a new community," she said.
"They think of Surprise Stadium as the center of the city, but this is where we really started. To carry on the traditions of a community you need to know where your roots started. You need to know where the history is."

In 2002, several of the old city buildings were renovated and after recently receiving a $315,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Housing, the city plans to help low-income homeowners bring their old homes up to code.